For five days in late July, I convinced myself and everybody around me that I was (a) a morning person and (b) an extrovert, neither of which is remotely true. It takes a pretty special event to pull off a stunt like that, and that was the Perennial Plant Association's 2015 national symposium in Baltimore. Every time I think about distilling five very busy, very intense, and overwhelmingly pleasurable days into one blog post, I get slightly dizzy. Instead, I've broken it into two blog posts. In this one I'll give my general impressions of the event, and I'll follow up in a few days with the gardens we saw on the tours.
Hardy hibiscus on one of the garden tours
I joined the Perennial Plant Association (PPA) earlier this year at the urging of my friend, Smithsonian gardener and PPA board member Janet Draper, when she was staffing the PPA booth at MANTS last January. Janet was one of the main organizers of the symposium and assured me it was an event not to be missed. Unlike the garden clubs and hobbyist plant societies I've been involved with, the PPA is a professional organization for "growers, retailers, landscape designers and contractors, educators, and others that are professionally involved in the herbaceous perennial industry". I'm not a horticultural professional, but I'm certainly a devoted plant geek and hope to head in that direction as a retirement career.
Janet Draper with (l-r) Adam Woodruff (Adam Woodruff + Associates), Bradley Evans (United States National Arboretum), Tony Spencer (The New Perennialist)
I've been gardening for nearly 50 years but I didn't go into horticulture in part because I am sooo not a morning person, and horticulture hours start early. (The introductory classes at Cornell started at 8 am, probably to weed out people like me. It worked.) Imagine my consternation when I discovered that the symposium's events started in the wee hours of the morning, with tours leaving—leaving!—the hotel at 7:30 am. Yeah, those are wee hours for me. Baltimore is less than an hour from DC but I knew there was no way I could get there in time for anything so I bit the bullet and stayed at the hotel. It turned out to be a good decision because there's a lot I would have missed, and so many people I would never have met.
PPA members on one of the many incredible tours. Behind us is a 50 foot cliff dropping off to the Chesapeake Bay. (Photo courtesy of Kyle Lambert)
Garden clubs, garden blogging, and the Garden Writers Association had already introduced me to a few PPA members, which helped counter my natural tendency towards introversion. But there was something more, something about being surrounded by plant geeks who shared an obsessive interest in all aspects of plants and gardening and weren't the least bit bored by a long conversation about an obscure plant. I've also found that carrying a camera makes it easier to walk up to total strangers, ask their names, and chat a bit before or after taking a photo.
Smile for the camera: (l-r) Donald Pell (Donald Pell Gardens), Ferenc Kiss (Cavano's Perennials), Gary Lewis (Phoenix Perennials) enjoy the Tuesday evening reception
The seminars on the first day were all very good but I didn't learn much I didn't already know. I was feeling a bit discouraged when University of Maryland horticulturist Sam Bahr invited me to join him and a couple of others for dinner at a Korean diner in one of the suburbs. This is when the week started to turn into an adventure, with similarly spontaneous gatherings introducing me to more and more people. After dinner, we wandered around an Asian grocery store doing what only a bunch of devoted plant geeks would do: identifying and discussing the various exotic fruits and vegetables that are rarely found in typical American supermarkets.
Dinner: almost too cute to eat. (Photo courtesy of Sam Bahr)
Something had changed because the next morning, I blinked awake 20 minutes before the alarm went off. This became a pattern for the next several days and I found myself full of energy from early morning until bedtime. Who needs sleep when there's so much to do and so many people to meet? The next four days are a blur of talks, trade show, silent auction, garden tours, and various social events including a reception overlooking a baseball game at Oriole Park Stadium and a fantastic tent party at Cylburn Arboretum. Introversion went out the window and I ended up meeting a huge number of people. Nearly 600 people attended the symposium and I can't imagine the planning, work, and coordination that went into it. Janet and her crew deserve a huge amount of credit for organizing such a great event.
It was a pleasure to finally meet people like Carolyn Mullet (Carex Garden Design and Garden Tours) whom I had previously known only through Facebook.
One of several container gardens donated for the silent auction
Container garden of succulents
Everybody signs the flamingo: Janet Draper, author Ruth Rogers Clausen, Washington National Cathedral horticulturist Joe Luebke
Pink flamingos everywhere: silent auction items
Reception: (l-r) Chuck Hinkle (Scott Arboretum of Swarthmore College), Martin Miller, Irvin Etienne (Indianapolis Museum of Art; PPA board member)
Reception: (l-r) Joe Luebke (The Bishop's Garden, Washington National Cathedral), Barbara Katz (London Landscapes LLC), Andy Shelley (Valley View Farms)
Reception: (l-r) Holly Scoggins (Virginia Tech), PPA scholarship recipient Josh Demers, and horticulturist/author Allan Armitage
Tom Mannion Landscape Design) (Photo courtesy of Janet Draper)
Cylburn Arboretum, location of the Wednesday night tent party
Wednesday's tours ended at Cylburn Arboretum, where a fabulous tent party complete with a live band greeted us. Just when it seemed Janet couldn't possibly pull out any more surprises, the rain that had threatened to dump on us cleared out, rewarding us with an incredible double rainbow. Everybody seemed to take it in stride; how could there not be a rainbow? Through it all, Janet kept smiling. Despite all the work (and probably not nearly enough sleep) she seemed to be having fun the entire time, and so did everybody else. I heard more than one person refer to the group as "family" and everybody seemed to know each other, with some friendships going back decades. At one point I told Ruth Clausen that I felt like I was crashing somebody else's party, but she chastised me, "no, you belong here!" And she was right, I did belong there, and everybody I met made me feel similarly welcome. I left the symposium feeling like I had found a long-lost family, and that maybe I should have gone into horticulture after all.
Tent party kicks off with a rainbow
Networking: Ferenc Kiss (Cavano's Perennials) and Sam Bahr (University of Maryland)
The next generation: (l-r) PPA scholarship recipient Nathan Nordstedt, Kelly Norris (Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden, KDN), Mason Day (GrowIt!), George Coombs (Mt. Cuba Center). (The plant behind them turned out to be a sore point. None of them could identify it, nor could I. I later found out it was Sambucus ebulus, unusual for being an herbaceous elderberry)
Clowning around: Dan Heims (Terra Nova Nurseries) performs a magic trick for Linda Hostetler (Hostetler Design) and Simple (Create a Scene, Inc.)
One last conversation: (l-r) Bradley Evans, Angela Treadwell-Palmer (Plants Nouveau), Mason Day, Kelly Norris, George Coombs
Janet was right: it was an event like no other. After the symposium ended, local garden blogger Susan Harris (DC Gardens, Garden Rant) wrote about this Plant fanatics party in Baltimore and a bit later, Tony Spencer (The New Perennialist) wrote about The Field Trip: A Perennial Summer Adventure. Both Susan and Tony raved about the people, with Tony saying, "The symposium was one thing. But the afterhours were all about the people.... Variations of these groups continued to talk for four days straight, after talks, during meals and all the way through a bus trip to visit local gardens – joined by a constantly changing parade of designers, writers and growers." Others have written about the great sessions and speakers (see links below). And it's all true so go, read what they wrote, and then come back for part 2 for photos from the garden tours. Nobody seems to be talking about the gardens, and they weren't exactly something to sniff at.
Hydrangeas on one of the tours
Please check out my follow-up posts on the tours:
Perennial Plant Association: the garden tours (part 1)
Perennial Plant Association: the garden tours (part 2)
Symposium photos (album 1)
Symposium photos (album 2)
Perennial Plant Association website
Perennial Plant Association on Facebook
Plant fanatics party in Baltimore (Susan Harris, Garden Rant)
The Field Trip: A Perennial Summer Adventure (Tony Spencer, The New Perennialist)
Perennial Plant Association’s 33rd Annual Symposium Explores Perennials, Past And Present (Janeen Wright, Greenhouse Grower magazine)
Creating the public prairie (Leslie Finical Halleck, Greenhouse Management magazine)
Plant symposium shows city in favorable light (Kathy Hudson, The Baltimore Sun)
PPA-related posts on Twitter